Flight to the Lonesome Place (10 page)

BOOK: Flight to the Lonesome Place
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That left birds and ventriloquists. Parrots lived in the mountains here, but it was beyond him to credit even the smartest parrot with Marlowe's intelligence. Birds—and that included mynah birds—just didn't have it.

As for ventriloquists …

Ronnie slipped the coil of fishing line over his shoulder, and thrust the hooks and the note into a pocket of his nearly dry trousers. Then, bag in hand, he turned toward the mountain, his ears alert for any small sound around him.

He had hardly taken three steps when Marlowe's voice came from a spot directly behind him, apparently from the tree he had just left. “Head for that clump of bamboo,” Marlowe ordered. “Turn to the right behind it, and you'll find steps.” Then, as he faltered, the voice sharpened and almost shrieked, “Keep going, Blue Boy! Keep going, and don't you dare turn around. You've no time to waste. Can't you see that it will soon be dark?”

Ronnie fought down the temptation to whirl and stare at the tree. He had already examined it carefully while taking the things out of the hollow. Marlowe wasn't there. The very impossibility of the voice speaking from the tree brought a colder prickling at his neck and down his spine.

A ventriloquist? No. Unless one actually
had
learned to throw his voice, as so many people still seemed to think.

He reached the bamboo and hesitated again, but a sharp word from Marlowe drove him behind it, and through an almost imperceptible opening in the foliage. The deepening blaze of evening color barely penetrated the thick canopy of leaves, but presently he made out the steps leading upward. They had been cut directly into the limestone and obviously were very old. All of them were eroded and broken, and many were hidden entirely by the matted roots of trees. From the angle of the climb he guessed they were headed for the exposed patch of rock he had noticed earlier.

They were. Ronnie came out suddenly upon a broad shelf, much larger than he had expected to find. Everything about it showed the hand of man—but of man long past. The crumbled protective wall around the edge had originally been made of carefully cut stone, and once seats of stone had lined the inside, but only a few of these were still usable. Of present-day man the only signs were the remains of a fire in a sheltered corner, and a large calabash full of fresh rainwater from the afternoon's deluge.

“Wait here,” came the voice of Marlowe from some indefinite spot in the tangle ahead.

Ronnie sank wearily down on the nearest seat and peered about with some astonishment. Mango trees loaded with green fruit framed a fantastic view of the darkening sea. Above him oranges were growing wild, and below he could make out the broad leaves of plantains and bananas. With fish from the sea, he thought, Marlowe and Black Luis should have little trouble living here. Only, where did they sleep? Surely not on this open shelf.

His wonderings were interrupted by approaching voices. Suddenly, as if materializing from the gathering night, the long, lean form of a black boy slid from the shadows on the other side of the shelf. He wore only sandals and ragged shorts made from an old pair of blue jeans, and he was the blackest person Ronnie had ever seen. Even his lips were dark, and, like all his thin and strangely handsome features, they seemed to have been very carefully carved from ebony.


¡Hola!
” he greeted. “I am Black Luis.”


¡Hola!
” said Ronnie, rising slowly. “I am Ronnie Cleveland.”

“I've seen your pictures. I recognize you. Marlowe says you're in trouble. He says Ana María Rosalita sent you here.” He spoke jerkily in a sharp voice, mixing English and Spanish just as Marlowe did. There was something oddly familiar in the way he pronounced an English phrase.

Ronnie replied easily in the same mixture of languages. “Yes,” he said. “—I've got to have a safe place to hide. I've plenty of money. I'll pay—” He stopped quickly, seeing that the mention of money was a mistake. The long eyes of the black boy had narrowed, and the thin face had tightened. From somewhere in the shadows the unseen Marlowe spat out, “Money!” as if it were the ugliest word ever devised by man.

Black Luis said, “Money is not wanted here. If you are a friend of Ana María Rosalita, that is enough. Her friends are our friends. We share what we have. Come.”

“Just a minute,” said Ronnie, slipping the coil of fishing line from his shoulder and reaching into his pocket for the hooks and the scrap of wrapping paper. “Here are some things I brought from your mailbox. I thought the note might be important.”

Line and hooks were received with an understandable eagerness, but the scrawled note brought a frown. The black boy squinted at it in the fading light. “It is from Nicky Robles, my friend up at the beach.” He shook his head. “I cannot make it out now. But Nicky never sends good news. So this has to be bad.”

Ronnie dug quickly into his bag, found his flashlight, and turned it on. It was instantly snatched away and turned off.

“Never show a light up here!” Black Luis warned. “Never! It can be seen for miles.” He went to a corner behind a bench, spread the note on the stone floor, and read the message with the light carefully shielded by his hands and body. “
Por supuesto
” he muttered. “I might have known it.”

“Is it—very bad?” Ronnie asked.

“Bad enough. But you do bring us good news along with the bad. It helps to know that we will see Ana María Rosalita again, though she must have told you it is dangerous for her to return. She is in trouble too.” The black boy sighed. “Now Nicky tells me that the officials will come to search for me. Tomorrow. The police and the immigration people. I am not wanted here. I am what they call an—an undesirable alien. If they catch me, I will be deported.”

“Ha!” Marlowe exclaimed. “
If
they catch you. That'll be the day!”

“But I can't stay here forever. Not with the way things have been going.”

Ronnie said, “Are you really an alien?”

“I—I don't know for sure. Only Don Carlos, Ana María Rosalita's father, knew the truth about that.”

“But surely there's a record—”

“Save it,” Marlowe interrupted sharply. “We'd better get him inside,
marinero
, before it gets too dark for him to see, since we can't show a light.”

“Then let's go. Follow me close, Blue Boy.”

To Ronnie, black dark came the instant they left the shelf and began crawling through the tangle. He could only feel his way along, guided by Black Luis' feet and an occasional word from Marlowe. Every time he groped forward over the matted roots his stomach contracted, and he chilled with the fear of the unknown tropical horror his fingers might touch: scorpions, centipedes, snakes.…

“Do—do you have any bad snakes here?” he asked once.

His question brought an instant chuckle from Black Luis. “Not on
this
mountain, Blue Boy. You won't find much of anything here that will bite, not even a mosquito. Anyway, there are no poisonous snakes on the island.”

“Oh. I didn't know. I—I've never been in a place like this before. To tell the truth, this is the first time I was ever in the woods.”

“Don't kid me, white feller.”

“I'm not kidding you. I've always lived in cities. I never had a chance to get out before.”

“I lived in a city once, but I sure got out.”

“Where was that?”

“New York. In that part they call Harlem. That's where I learned to speak English. Oh, I had it in school in Córcega. But Harlem's the place where I learned to use it. They got a real school there for teaching Spanish-speaking kids.”

So that was why the black boy's pronunciation had seemed so familiar. “Harlem,” Ronnie said quietly, “is where I first learned to speak Spanish.”

“No!” Movement ahead stopped. “You're putting me on, white feller. What were
you
ever doing in a place like
Harlem?

“Trying to stay alive.”

“Go on! The Blue Boy never had to worry about keeping his belly full.”

“I wasn't the Blue Boy then. I never knew my people, if I ever had any. About the first thing I can remember was crawling down an alley, hungry. An old black woman took me in. She used to steal so we could eat. All she had to give me that first day was some dry bread soaked in water, with a little sugar on it. Did that ever taste good!”


¡Hombre!
I never had it that bad.”

There was a silence. Then Black Luis said, “My mamma died early, but I had the best papa anywhere to look after me till he was killed in an accident. We lived in that house down below us that was burned. Did you notice it?”

“Yes. What happened there?”

Before the black boy could answer, Marlowe cried, “That unspeakable Bernardo put a match to it! With his own hands! Oh, how I would like to see Ana María Rosalita give him warts—”


¡Quieto!
We'll talk about him later.” To Ronnie he said, “We're at the door. I'll lift the vines out of the way and hold the light. You crawl in first.”

The light stabbed into a narrow black tunnel under the vines. The mere thought of entering it made Ronnie shudder, but he gathered his courage and did as he was told. When he was finally able to stand erect and look around, he was astonished to discover that he was in a large cave, clean, dry, and pleasantly cool. Nor was it an ordinary cavern of eroded limestone, such as he had glimpsed during the afternoon. In the beginning, no doubt, it had been just that. But in some distant past man had smoothed the walls and leveled the floor; then he had carved extra rooms and grottoes, and decorated it all with symbolic designs of birds and fish chiseled into the rock. Finally—and Ronnie found this equally astonishing—modern man had furnished it with a variety of odds and ends and actually succeeded in making it homelike.

Lanterns, ancient and modern, hung about the walls. Only one was lighted, and by its feeble glow he could make out chairs and an ancient table of carved wood, a cot with what seemed to be a hand-woven cover, and some built-in bookshelves jammed with old books. A net hammock hung in a corner between stout metal hooks driven into the rock. At an angle to the right of it was a man-made alcove obviously used as a kitchen. Beyond it, in a larger alcove, the lantern light glinted faintly on the ornate post of an old bed. The region on the other side of it was lost in darkness.

“What I have is yours,” Black Luis said, and now there was more than mere politeness in his voice. “Make yourself at home.”

“Thank you,” said Ronnie, peering about in wonder. “This is some place. Did you just find it, or what?”

“Oh, we've always sort of known about it. I mean, Marlowe and I, and his ancestors and mine. The
indios
used it before the Spanish came. This country's full of caves. Most of them are known, but the Spanish never learned of ours. Did Ana María Rosalita tell you about it?”

“She said you'd gone underground.”

“Well, she knows of it, though she's never seen it. We've never used it except as a hiding place. My grandpapa got in trouble once, and hid in here for two years. He's the one who fixed it up the way it is now. Worked in here all day and came out only at night to pick fruit or catch fish. That's how
we
have to live.” Black Luis gave a short, bitter laugh, then added, “But we won't be able to hide here much longer. A few more weeks …” He shrugged.

Ronnie stared at him. “What's going on? Besides what's happening tomorrow, I mean.”

“Tomorrow is part of it. It belongs to the same string of trouble. The string is being tightened all around us. Soon it will squeeze us out.”

“And Bernardo is the one who's pulling the string?”

“Who else? But don't ask me why. It makes no sense. It is a crazy thing.” Black Luis sighed. “I am not afraid for myself. I would hate to lose this place, yes. But it is no great matter. I can get lost and manage somehow. The big worry is that the same string is tightening around Ana María Rosalita. That is what scares me.”

“It scares me too,” said Ronnie, remembering how viciously the Señora had struck her after leaving the boat. “She told me she'd run away, if things got bad, and come here. She won't let them take her back to Santo Domingo.”

“But that is their plan! I know!” The black boy pounded his fists together. “They would get rid of us both. My grapevine is good. Marlowe gets around. What he misses, I get from Nicky Robles. His sister works at Las Alturas. That's the old Montoya villa where Don Bernardo is living now. I don't know how Ana María Rosalita can get out of that place—”

“What's wrong with it?”

“It's built on the side of the mountain, like a fort. Anyway, it would be just like that dirty
bribón
to lock her in her room.”

“Then we'll go and get her out,” Ronnie told him.

“If you think that would be easy—”

“Nothing is easy on an empty stomach,” Marlowe interrupted from the darkness of the entrance. “It is past time to eat,
marinero
, which means it is no time to talk of troubles and make plans. The Blue Boy's about had it today. Didn't he tell you someone's been trying to kill him ever since he reached San Juan?”


¡Madre!
” the black boy exclaimed. “Who would want to do a thing like that? Sit down. Tell me about it while I bring the supper.”

“I have his dessert,” Marlowe called. “I've just picked it.”

A red and gold object the size of two teacups rolled out of the darkness and skittered across the stone toward the table. The aroma of it instantly filled the cave.

Ronnie caught it up and held it in the light. “A mango!” he exclaimed. “A ripe one!”

“Of course it's ripe!” Marlowe said tartly. “Did you think I'd be scummy enough to offer you a green one?”

BOOK: Flight to the Lonesome Place
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